06 July 2013

Ty Kelly for Eric Thames

At first glance, the recent minor trade between the Orioles and Mariners — in which the Orioles acquired outfielder Eric Thames in exchange for utilityman Ty Kelly — doesn't warrant comment. Kelly wasn't on the Orioles' 40-man roster, and before the 2013 season Baseball America ranked him as the #30 prospect in the Orioles' system. Thames was immediately optioned to Norfolk and placed on the seven-day disabled list (the disabled list for minor-league teams is seven days) with a broken finger. (Specifically, a non-displaced fracture of the second metacarpal of his left hand.) However, looking more closely at Kelly, Thames and the trade provides an insight into where the Orioles are and where the Mariners are.

Thames was signed by the Blue Jays as their 2008 7th-round draft pick out of Pepperdine. In his junior year, he suffered a torn quadriceps muscle in his right leg in and didn't play a full season in the minors until 2010. He shot through AA New Hampshire (.288/.370/.526) in 2010 and AAA Las Vegas (,352/.410/.610) in the first third of 2011. He got into 95 games with the Jays in 2011 and slugged .456; but from 2011 to 2012, his major-league walk to strikeout ratio deteriorated from 23-88 to 15-87. Correspondingly, his OPS dropped from .769 to .672. He was traded to the Mariners for relief pitcher Steve Delabar at the end of July, 2012. Thames is a stocky left-handed slugger, with below-average defensive tools in the outfield.

As it happens, I saw Eric Thames play in two 2010 games (August 10 and 11) when New Hampshire played at Richmond. I admit to not remembering anything about him, but a review of my scoresheets of the games reveal that those games highlight his strengths and weaknesses to a tee. He had eleven plate appearances in the two games; he got four hits in those two games. Two were doubles on long fly balls to the oufield; one was a ground-ball single to right; the fourth a line-drive single to center. He drew one walk, but also struck out four times, including his last three at-bats on August 11. This is Thames in a nutshell; good power (Richmond is a tough place to hit) but weak strike-zone judgment.

Ty Kelly was signed as the Orioles 2009 13th-round draft choice out of the University of California - Davis. For his first two full seasons, he looked like an organizational player, as he hit .262/.357/.310 in Delmarva. In 2012, something clicked as he hit.340/.460/.513 at Frederick and .308/.384/.413 at Bowie. He even held his own in an eleven-game emergency fill-in stint in Norfolk. Although he wasn't as spectacular at Bowie in 2013; he continued to get on base (.289/.389/.382). Unfortunately for Kelly, he doesn't drive the ball and doesn't have much speed; his offensive game is a lot like that of former Orioles' outfield prospect Matt Angle, without Angle's speed. Defensively, he plays second with below-average range, third with a below-average arm, and the corner outfield with both below-average range and a below-average arm. Perhaps because he hasn't settled into a position, he's been error-prone. Kelly's future depends on whether his on-base ability makes up for his defensive limitations and lack of power.

I saw Kelly play two games during his 2012 Norfolk stint and three games for Bowie in 2013. I won't provide details because Kelly's now out of the organization, but my observation confirms the conclusions drawn from his statistical record.

The Orioles are in win-now mode; they should do everything they can to win in 2013. They're gambling that Thames can get hot, like (for example) Glenallen Hill in 1998. Hill, a player with good power and minimal strike-zone judgment, like Thames, was claimed on waivers by the Cubs (interestingly enough, from the Mariners) and helped them to their wild-card berth, producing .351/.414/.573 in 48 games, 145 plate appearances. If Thames plays anywhere near that well for the Orioles, he'll help them get into the playoffs. In contrast, Ty Kelly had very little chance of helping the Orioles this year and is unlikely to push aside any of their current players.

On the other hand, the Mariners are building for the future. Eric Thames won't develop into a star or probably even a consistent regular. Even if he were to get hot for a stretch this season, it won't make a major difference to the Mariners who are not in the 2013 playoff picture. Ty Kelly probably won't be much more than a second-division regular, but the Mariners can hope he develops more fully and he's quite a nice return for a player the Mariners can't use. It's a good deal for both teams, even if it's not likely to have much impact.

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